A leading psychologist argues that a capacity for fiction is what separates man from beast. It seems obvious that there exists a tremendous gap between the capacities of human minds and those of animals. Our minds have spawned civilizations and technologies that have changed the face of the Earth, while even our closest primate relatives remain confined to the borders of their dwindling forest habitats. But what is the nature of the gap? Is there really a difference between our minds and those of the great apes, or are we just blinded by the idea of human exceptionalism?
In The Gap, psychologist Thomas Suddendorf provides the first definitive account of what makes human minds different from those of other animals, and how this difference arose. He proposes that two innovations account for all of the ways in which our minds appear so distinct: our open-ended ability to imagine and reflect on different situations, and our insatiable drive to link our minds together. Drawing on two decades of research on apes, children and human evolution, Suddendorf surveys the main areas cited as being uniquely human-language, intelligence, morality, culture, theory of mind and "mental time travel" – and shows that these are merely manifestations of our larger imaginative and empathetic drives.
He closes The Gap with the surprising suggestion that our unique status may be our own creation. Many species in the human family used to walk this Earth, and the gap is as wide as it is because all members of our immediate family either died out or were killed off by our human ancestors. In other words, we are the last humans. Moreover Suddendorf argues that this gap is widening. Not only are we are becoming smarter but we are also reducing the capacities of our closest living relatives-by driving them to extinction. A provocative argument for reconsidering our vaunted place in nature, The Gap is essential reading for anyone interested in our evolutionary origins and our relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom.
Thomas Suddendorf is a professor of psychology at the University of Queensland, whose research has been covered by the BBC, Discover, and the New York Times. He lives in Queensland, Australia.